These days, the ‘American Dream’ can seem like a distant fantasy. Certainly, in the aftermath of the global COVID-19 pandemic and following many years under an administration with anti-immigration sentiments at its core, opportunities for migrants to the USA appear few and far between.
Once upon a time, however, this was far from the case. Such goes the story of a young Ernest Koken, a German citizen born in 1855, right on the cusp of the industrial revolution which would give rise to the technology he would employ to fame and fortune.
Ernest migrated to St. Louis, Missouri in the USA as a young boy, following his father’s untimely death, and there began work on a chair for use in men’s barber’s and hair salons.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the fascinating history of the vintage barber chair bearing Koken’s name, as well as give tips on how to successfully identify a genuine chair produced by the leading barber supply business of the early 1900s – Koken Barbers Supply Company – look at the value of Koken’s chairs, and where you might look to buy one.
The History of the Koken Barber Chair
Ernest Koken was already making a name for himself come his late-teens, when he began designing and manufacturing porcelain barber supplies such as fine china shaving mugs, razors, strops, mirrors, and clippers, which he’d sell door-to-door to barber shops all around the country.
Diversifying his portfolio, Koken began to dream bigger, inventing his very first innovative barber chair in 1881, at the age of just 26. This chair reclined so as to allow barbers to more easily and safely shave their patients using straight razors. Four years later, Koken added swivel mechanisms to his chairs, affording barbers and their patients even greater levels of comfort and practicality.
Finally, in 1892, after eleven years of improvements upon an already-impressive piece of barbering upholstery, Koken patented hydraulic lifts to power his barber chair, on top of the swivel and recline. Thus, the Koken Barber Chair we know and love today was born.
- 1881 – Koken patents a reclining barber chair.
- 1885-88 – Koken patents a series of reclining chairs which also swivel.
- 1892 – Koken patents the hydraulic barber chair which would make him famous.
- 1909 – Ernest Koken dies of heart failure at the age of fifty-four; his son inherits his company.
- 1926 – The Koken Barbers Supply Company opens a foundry allowing them to manufacture upwards of one-hundred Koken Barber Chairs per day.
- 1950s – The company goes out of business following the introduction of cheaper models, and an increasing tendency in America’s youth culture toward longer hair and beard growth. The Koken Barbers Supply Company is purchased by Japanese manufacturer Takara Belmont.
When introduced to the world in 1892, Koken’s famous hydraulic-powered chair took America by storm, appearing in barber shops all around the country. The quality of the manufacturing, along with the ingenious design (which made the life of barbers much easier) made Koken barber chairs a mainstay in hairdresser’s shops for the succeeding 50+ years.
Today, an antique Koken chair in perfect condition may sell for an exceptional amount of money, as they’re considered not only worthwhile investments for the purpose of daily use by modern barbers, but also as statement pieces in upmarket and hipster shops alike.
How to Identify a Vintage Koken Barber Chair
As is always the case with antiques, it’s important to be able to successfully identify a genuine Koker chair before buying (or selling) one. Doing so will ensure you get a fair price, or may even help you to score one of the United States’ most beloved inventions for a record price from uninformed sellers.
There are a few things to look out for when identifying a true vintage Koken barber’s chair, but the most important is most certainly to look for the authentic stamp of the brand name ‘Koken’ in the intricate metalwork of the chair.
Metalwork and Branding
Koken barber chairs weren’t just impressively engineered, they were also rather stunning pieces of art. Those produced in the 1920s adhered to en vogue Art Deco style, whilst those from the 1940s and ’50s lent themselves more to the charmingly minimalist aesthetic of the American mid-century.
When identifying legitimate Koken chairs, you should first look at the metalwork. The brackets, base and footrest should all be of metal design. Chrome if from the ’40s or ’50s, another more intricately-worked metal if even earlier. The metal was typically heavily stylized, too.
Most importantly, look for the branding ‘Koken’ worked into the metal of the footrest or on the back of the chair. Find this, and you know you’re onto a winner.
Koken’s barber chairs were also renowned for the fine leather upholstery on the arm rests, seat, back support and sometimes even the footrest. Finding signs of age in the leatherwork of the seat you’re appraising might actually be a good thing, since it may suggest the legitimate age of an antique chair (though, unfortunately, may also reduce its worth).
Finally, you should take a look at the framework of the hydraulic chair itself. Most Koken barber chairs, especially those made between the 1890s and 1930s, had frames built of oak, walnut, and other sturdy, attractive wood.
Those built later, as we stated before, tended toward chrome metal frames instead. Much of the wooden framework of Koken’s oldest barber chairs was just as richly carved and decorated as the metalwork, making these earliest prototype designs highly prized by the modern barber.
How Much are Antique Koken Barber Chairs Worth?
It’s clear that Koken’s uniquely-designed barber chairs were quite the thing back in their day, but that doesn’t mean they’ve fallen out of fashion now. In fact, much to the contrary, even a Koken hydraulic chair in poor condition may still fetch around $500.
As always, the better condition the chair is in, the more it will fetch at auction. However, there are also certain types (or eras) of Koken barber chairs which are more valuable than others.
Unlike some other antiques, Koken barber chairs are most valuable if restored to original condition. The closer to ‘mint’ condition (see below) the chair is, the more valuable it will also be.
- Mint Condition – Chair is in perfect working order, with fully-operational hydraulics, impeccable upholstery (in original design and color), beautiful original carvings and metalwork, and with no rust or other damage.
- Excellent Condition – Chair is in near-perfect working order, with operational hydraulics and no wear-and-tear to upholstery, and with minimal rust.
- Very Good Condition – Chair is in good working order, with operational hydraulics and only light wear-and-tear to upholstery, with minimal-to-moderate rust.
- Good Condition – Chair is in fairly good condition, but may require repairs to the hydraulics, as well as other minor-to-moderate repairs to the upholstery, with moderate rusting.
- Poor Condition – Chair doesn’t work (not the hydraulics nor the recline or swivel mechanisms), and may require extensive re-upholstering and cleaning of rust or other damage.
Depending on the era of the chair, a higher or lower value will be attributed to it, in combination with the condition the chair is in at the time of sale. Identify the serial number located on the underside of the seat cushion to establish origin and model.
- 1880s – Non-hydraulic chair with delicate wood and metalwork.
- 1890s – Earliest, original hydraulic-design chair with delicate wood and metalwork.
- 1900-1940 – Art Deco style hydraulic-design chair (most valuable and popular)
- 1940-1960 – Mid-century style hydraulic-design chair (least valuable and popular)
Koken barber chairs may sell to buyers at auction for anything between $500 and $6,000, depending on the chair design and working condition. On average, however, a Koken barber chair in Very Good-Mint condition will sell for somewhere in the range of $1,000-$3,000.
More specifically, an Art Deco chair from the early-1900s, in Mint condition, might score a bid of as much as $6,000, whereas even Very Good condition chairs from the 1940s and ’50s may only earn you $500-$1,000.
Where to Buy Antique Koken Barber Chairs
Antique Koken barber chairs are, we won’t lie, hard to come by. Those from the late-1800s and early-1900s even more so. Nevertheless, there are a few places we’d recommend checking out if you’re in the market to buy one of the coolest and oldest barber chairs around.
Ernest Koken lived the American Dream. He emigrated to the States as a young boy and paved a path for himself to fame and fortune through the patent design of his famous hydraulic chair for barbers. Today, prototype designs and Art Deco era Koken chairs in Mint condition sell for thousands of dollars. Just be sure to check the authenticity of any chair you plan to buy or sell! If you’ve any questions about antique Koken barber chairs, please drop us a comment in the comment section down below.